We must kick our addiction to ABCs

WHO would work in the regional press?

Job cuts, budget cuts, discretionary spend, consultants, fewer editions, advertising going through the floor, strategic reviews, media fragmentation — and now the worst set of ABCs across the board that anyone can remember.

Are the figures a reflection of the above list? Undoubtedly.

Does it allow understandably disenchanted and lowly-paid journalists to point the finger at management and say — "see what you have done"? Naturally.

But is it the only side of the story? Of course not.

No doubt the Newspaper Society was bracing itself for the publication of the latest set of ABCs. In the past it has unfairly been accused of spinning any inevitable downturn — while just trying to show the full picture.

In its favour at ABC time is the fact that the national media publications and websites are so obsessed with their own sector and rivals' performance that they just give a cursory glance and tutting of tongues when the regional figures come out.

But Press Gazette and Media Week — read by regional journalists and advertising agencies alike — will analyse the picture more thoroughly.

And though it may be unfair to just concentrate on a set of figures and league tables for traditional copy sales — let's face it, we are our own worst enemies.

Who will admit to not turning straight to the list to discover who has been hit with double-digit decline?

What the Newspaper Society is saying this time round is — yes, those figures are bad, but let's look at it in the round.

Most regional newspaper groups have finally got to grips with the threats and opportunities that the digital world holds.

Having been totally schizophrenic in the '90s (building up large new media teams, integrating them, separating them, sacking most of them, putting websites under the newspaper brand, removing any mention of the newspaper etc) they are hoping to be better prepared for the "second digital wave".

In embracing this, many are actively pioneering and investing in projects they know will knock their paid-for copy sale — but will still give advertisers access to an audience. Look at the Manchester Evening News — minus 16.5 per cent is a hell of a hammering.

But you need to take into account the number of free papers they are giving away, plus all their other extensive new media and TV portfolio sales.

And Northcliffe has long been at the forefront with its NEP division, yet the pioneering Hull Daily Mail, with all its video journalism and online activity, still managed -7.1 per cent.

On the face of it, this title looks as if it is doing much worse than its sector average, but I calculated the figures for the largest "evening" papers and excluded the MEN and Birmingham's -17.5 per cent (which can only get better and is skewing the sector figures ridiculously).

The average performance for titles selling more than 60,000 copies is -6.45 per cent.

That puts Hull just out of the picture, but means that the Express and Star (-4.4), Evening Chronicle, Newcastle (-6.4)

Stoke Sentinel (-5.8), Shropshire Star (-4.8), Evening Times, Glasgow (-4.4) and Belfast Telegraph (6.3) still have reasons to be cheerful.

Yes, many of the above will have cut editions and staff to make cost savings, but they will also have invested in new product development, and their reach will often be greater through their extended portfolio than it was before.

Now the industry needs to help itself by working out how to compile these diverse measurements so they are meaningful to the staff and the advertising world.

That means coming up with audited figures for websites (measuring unique users as opposed to page impressions) and standardising survey questions. It means understanding what the net reach is for print and online.

The NS Portfolio Audience Group has agreed this is of crucial importance, so let us hope the frenetic activity which will be taking place in the next six months comes to fruition.

It may cost smaller newspaper groups more, but surely it will pay off in the long term if there is an acceptable industry currency which weans us off our six-monthly addiction to the current ABC measurement.

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